SFReader 2013 Story Contest
First Place Winner
People entertain certain expectations of female wizards. For one, we’re supposed to live either in a solitary hut atop a bald hill (and so always in view of the townspeople, to inspire continual gossip about us and those who seek our counsel), or in a ramshackle house in the woods (there to serve as a threat to keep children from wandering off). They’re confusing us with witches, whose work requires all manner of leaves, bark, fungi, and whatnot. Witches live where those items grow.
I’ve nothing against witches, but I’m a wizard, and while that does require some degree of solitude, I still prefer living in town. Here, I am inconspicuous; furthermore, the clientele is wealthier, which in turn allows me to consider more “hard luck” cases.
I like the city.
If events unfold as I hope they do, I’ll never set foot here again.
Urban life does have disadvantages. Chief among these is that the city guard considers me the resident expert on the uncanny, so anything–or anyone–they don’t understand winds up on my doorstep. Usually, it turns out to be nothing; every time, in fact, except one.
It happened on an otherwise-unremarkable evening last autumn. I had indulged in a third glass of wine with my dinner, and was dozing in my favorite chair, my slumber abetted by the cozy fire that kept the chill at bay. There came a frantic hammering at my door, jolting me from strange but pleasant dreams. I answered readily, but warily.
I was relieved to find Tarvis standing there. Though I’m sure the other city guardsmen are, in their own way, lovely people, Tarvis was my preferred liaison; unlike his fellows, he groomed himself regularly, used complete sentences, and was polite to me out of conviviality rather than fear. Furthermore (as best I could judge these things), he was not unpleasant to behold, though this night he was the worse for wear, with several cuts on his face and a broken nose.
Behind Tarvis, in the darkened street, two fellow guardsmen held between them a third figure, female in outline, who made a show of struggling despite being securely shackled.
“Lady Igarra, I’m sorry to disturb you.” I’m certainly no Lady (my stock is common as moss) but there was no talking him out of the honorific.
“Never you mind, Tarvis. What’s going on here?”
He pointed over his shoulder. “Tasmos and Corek here, they found this woman passed out in Dog-leg Alley. They were searching her for money,” and here Tarvis cast a disapproving glance behind him, “when she came to, and, well, I was passing by on the main street and heard the commotion. The three of us got her subdued, but it was rough going.”
“It certainly looks that way.”
“We don’t know what to do with her. She can’t understand us, we can’t understand her, and she’s kind of strange-looking anyhow; I thought you might be able to make sense of things.”
“Bring her in,” I said.
The guards conveyed into my front room a woman roughly thirty years of age. She remained silent, but looked me in the eye; I saw defiance, tempered with fright. She was remarkably unscathed, considering the brawl she’d been in. And she was, indeed, quite strange-looking.
Her clothes were odd enough, but I had never seen hair so red, nor skin so white. Granted, it is a wide world, but our grand city attracts visitors from all corners, civilized and otherwise; nevertheless, whichever of the myriad races of man she represented, I was encountering it for the first time.
“Unshackle her, you two. She’s no threat to me.” The guards reluctantly complied. “Are you going to behave?” I asked. The woman didn’t respond, but stood her ground peaceably.
“Please be careful, Lady Igarra,” said Tarvis as he and the other guards withdrew to the street. “If there’s trouble, send for me. I’ll be at the infirmary. Maybe Lady Estradi can snap this nose of mine back into place.”
Estradi was a city-dwelling witch (that rarest of creatures), and a physician of repute. “She does excellent work.”
“I hope so,” said Tarvis, pulling the door closed. “I get little enough female attention as it is. This may cost me even that small measure.”
Now alone with the woman, I pointed at myself. “Igarra,” I said. “What’s your name?” She didn’t understand me; at least, nothing in the stream of gibberish she spouted sounded like an answer to my question.
“All right,” I said. “I can see that this will take time. But please believe you’re in no danger.”
The woman didn’t speak again, but only glanced between me and the door.
“Are you hungry?” I mimed eating, and she nodded, reluctantly. I sat her down at the table and brought wine, along with the remaining half of the fowl I’d roasted that evening. She was tentative. “If I am poisoning you, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway,” I sighed. The woman just looked at me blankly. I took a bite of the fowl; chewed and swallowed, smiling benevolently. “See? It’s fine.”
That was all the motivation she needed. The fowl was gone in minutes; the wine, too. I was glad she liked the wine; it would calm her enough to sleep well that night.
(It was perhaps worth noting that, though she’d been unconscious when found, she’d emitted not a whiff of liquor when they’d brought her in.)
She was asleep soon after, and barely stirred when I carried her (stumblingly, for she was no slight creature) up to my spare room, undressed her, and put her to bed. Seen in its entirety, her white skin was nearly too much for the eye to bear; as if anticipating my complaint, she had interrupted it with several abstract tattoos.
I set out spare clothing from my own wardrobe, in case she woke before me, and brought her clothes downstairs to examine them.
The coat was leather, dyed black; it closed in the front by means of a tab that forced together two sets of metal teeth. It was well-made, but cut to jacket length, which limited its usefulness as protection against the elements.
The boots were black leather as well, of the finest manufacture I’d ever seen. The trousers were sturdy, cut from a finely-woven, blue-dyed fabric with strange diagonal ribbing on the reverse. The coat’s ingenious closing mechanism was duplicated here, but smaller.
There was a black shirt as well, of ridiculously-thin material, emblazoned with a hideous device: some sort of skeletal creature. Above this emblem were two sets of characters in a foreign language, appearing thus: IRON MAIDEN. It was all I could do not to throw it in the fire.
Undergarments, the woman had lacked entirely.
In the trousers, I found a folding leather case that contained numerous rectangular bits of paper (and another, stiffer substance), all bearing writing in an unfamiliar script (if “script” was what one called those stark, blocky letters). One of them also displayed a miniature portrait of the woman, in impossibly realistic detail.
I put her things safely away and retired to my own bed. My guest would still be here when I woke; the doors and shutters of my home obeyed only me.
It’s a strange country you come from, my dear. I managed no further thoughts before sleep claimed me once more.
I named her Flame. Looking at her hair, I could think of nothing else.
(Pedants will complain that I bestowed a noun rather than a proper name. Well, names start out meaning something, or they should. As I couldn’t consult her genealogy or cultural background, I started from scratch. Frankly, I expected it to catch on, and had no doubt that, years hence, there would be queens and noble Ladies named Flame.)
The going was slow at first, but between broad gestures and my rudimentary language lessons, Flame was able to convey to me all she knew of her origins.
Which was nothing.
She remembered only a blinding flash, then waking up in Dog-leg Alley with the two guards, Tasmos and Corek, pawing at her. I showed her the shirt and the little papers in the leather case; she recognized these as hers, but couldn’t read them. Nor did she recall her true name.
I decided to give Flame comprehensive language instruction. We worked all winter. When we walked outdoors (for there was only so much practical vocabulary to be gleaned from my humbly-appointed home), she couldn’t help but attract attention, even in the nearly-empty, snowbound streets. Soon the entire neighborhood knew of Flame, and the rumors had begun. These didn’t bother me; as a wizard, I’d been accused of much worse offenses than bedding strange women, and as my genuine proclivities lay far afield of such doings, the innuendo was easily ignored.
By spring, Flame had become reasonably fluent in our own native speech. She was a well-motivated pupil; by the time the snow melted for good, she knew our grammar, boasted a sizable mental lexicon, and grasped the more straightforward verb tenses.
It was progress, but it was our only progress. I had spent the winter corresponding with various scholars. No one knew of any land peopled by red-haired, pale-skinned folk. Flame remained as she had been, a single pearl in a field of acorns.
The time came when a certain subject needed broaching.
“I’ve very nearly taught you all I can. What remains, you’ll pick up in conversation. You’re welcome in my home as long as you like, but I fear you would die of boredom with nothing to do all day. Have you given your future any thought? Perhaps you wish me to teach you magic…”
Flame burst out laughing. “And how many more languages must I learn to do that?
“Too many more.”
“One more is too many more.”
“I don’t imagine you recall your prior occupation?”
“No. But if it’s a matter of earning a living, I’m not above any work.”
“It is not a matter of earning a living. You’ll never lack for a meal or a bed as long as I’m alive. Best to leave common labor to those who genuinely need the employment.”
“Have you any talent? A knack for anything?”
“Not that I remember.”
Then it came to me. “But you do have a talent that I remember. And I know a guardsman with a slightly-rearranged face who would agree.”
The witch Estradi had done a good job on Tarvis’s face, but the shape of his nose still indicated slightly the recent violence that had been perpetrated upon it. Personally, I thought it made him more interesting-looking.
I led Tarvis into the house. Flame was seated at the table, reading. She rose as we entered.
“Ah,” said Tarvis. “The white fury herself. I had heard she was still here, but you never know with gossip. Are you hoping to promote a rematch?”
“Actually,” said Flame, “we had something else in mind.”
“She speaks well,” Tarvis said to me. “I’m impressed.”
“Then tell her, you boor.”
“Right. Sorry. You speak well. I’m impressed.”
“Thank you, Tarvis,” said Flame.
“It’s a great improvement on our last meeting, Lady Flame.”
“You’re looking at your newest recruit,” I said.
“Lady Igarra, you can’t be serious.”
“Why in the world not? You already know she can fight.”
“That’s true,” said Tarvis, rubbing his nose ruefully.
“Wouldn’t you rather she were on your side?”
“That’s a good point.”
“She can round up drunks as easily as the rest of you. More easily; they’ll take one look at her, think she’s a ghost, and pass out.”
“She’s smarter than any ten of your men, Tarvis. She already speaks better than most of them, and we’ve barely started on the future perfect progressive tense.”
The city guard’s fitness regimen had never been stringent, and Flame easily outshone her fellow recruits. Her deficiencies in swordsmanship and archery (activities that had evidently been absent from her prior life) were remedied through steady practice and much off-hours instruction from Tarvis. She soon assumed regular duty; this, coupled with the required time spent “on call” in the barracks, meant that I rarely saw her.
When she did come home (for I had begun thinking of my home as our home), I was pleased with what I saw. To be sure, she cut a striking physical figure: newly-forged mail shirt, sky-blue tabard bearing her badge of office, stray ends of red hair escaping from beneath her helmet. But more delightful was her demeanor; she no longer carried herself like a lost child, but moved with purpose.
I took no small pride in having helped her to find her way in the world.
“I’ve discovered another talent,” Flame said to me over dinner one evening.
“I don’t know how I feel about that,” I said. “Now you’ve got me outscored, two talents to one.”
“Tarvis borrowed a pair of horses from the guard stables. We went riding in the countryside.”
Much of Flame’s conversation that late spring had involved Tarvis; rather more than one would expect when talking about a mere friend or mentor. I was thrilled for them.
“And how did you take to it?”
“Splendidly. I got the trick of it right away. Tarvis says I’m a natural, but you never know when to believe him.”
“Perhaps you’d ridden in your former life.”
“It’s funny you should say that. There was something about riding at a gallop; the wind in my face, my hair flying madly about…”
“That must have been a sight.”
“It felt right. On that horse, I felt at home for the first time…since I woke up.”
I can’t say that didn’t pain me; to sit in my front room–our front room–and hear Flame as much as say she didn’t feel at home here. Perhaps she hadn’t actually meant it that way.
“There’s nothing for it, then,” I said. “You and Tarvis must have proper mounts of your own. No more ‘borrowing’ city property. I’ll attend to it, and see to proper stabling and whatnot.”
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You haven’t asked.”
We made our goodbyes on the doorstep. The stars were out; it had been a late dinner. Flame was due at the barracks. Yet she lingered, drawing out the conversation with trivialities.
I finally asked what was bothering her.
“I’m starting to have mixed feelings about my riding prowess.”
“Oh? I’d think, if nothing else, you would be happy to have a piece of the puzzle in place.”
“That’s the problem. Suddenly it feels like I have no say in who I am. Like all the decisions have already been made, but nobody’s told me, so I’m left to figure out the answers for myself.”
“You feel as though you’re not in command of your fate.” Are any of us?
“I’m incomplete. There’s more of me somewhere, but I don’t know what it is or where to look for it. So how can I feel like a person? That’s the least you ought to be able to expect in life. To be certain you’re a person.”
“You think, therefore you are,” I offered.
“That sounds fair. If only we could be sure it was true.”
“I understand why you feel as you do. But you’ll be more content if you cut the world a bit of slack.”
“What world? I couldn’t honestly swear there was a world before last autumn.”
“I think you should get some sleep.”
“I’m sorry,” said Flame. “I’m annoying you.”
“Not at all. It’s just that I can’t be seen discussing philosophy in the street; I have a reputation to uphold.”
“Good night, Ibarra.”
“Good night, my dear.”
I went back in the house. I found myself treading heavily, and the sound of my footsteps on the floorboards was oddly reassuring.
Summer arrived, bringing with it the Tournament.
The Tournament was held annually by the guard in the fields outside the city walls: a contest of skill at arms to decide their most cunning fighter. For reasons that escaped me, it attracted quite a crowd. Whittling hundreds of guardsmen down to the final two took days; thus, it was a festival in all but name, with the attendant celebration and commotion.
Tarvis had sometimes made offhand mention of the Tournament–and his performance therein–over the years. I had congratulated or commiserated as appropriate, and put it out of my mind. This year was different.
This year, I attended.
I was bored within minutes. It was hour after hour of guardsmen hammering away at one another with blunted weapons, their bouts scored according to some esoteric system I couldn’t begin to understand. Each hit looked just like every other; why was one awarded a full point, one a half, one a quarter? I had no idea.
I was only interested in two of the contestants. Tarvis won his first bout handily. Flame faced Tasmos–one of her would-be pickpockets–in the initial round, and thrashed him even more soundly than she’d done in Dog-leg Alley last year. Most of the first-round matches were equally one-sided; the Tournament had been seeded to eliminate the more hopeless contestants early on. For enthusiasts, this was all well and good; for me, it meant only that succeeding bouts featured better-matched combatants, and so lasted all the longer.
I won’t recount the proceedings. The only events worth discussing occurred in the concluding round. To everyone’s surprise except mine, the two finalists were Flame and Tarvis.
They began at opposite ends of the field, moving to the center at the arbiter’s signal. Tradition called for salutes, bows, or the touching of blades. Flame forwent the custom; instead, she seized Tarvis by his tabard, and, for the second time, hit him squarely in the face–but with lips instead of fists. A roar went up from the assembled guardsmen at this public acknowledgement of something most had suspected.
The fight commenced. Tarvis had taught Flame well–so well, that at the end of the stipulated period, neither had scored even a quarter-point upon the other. Time was called, water fetched, and a brief respite mandated by the arbiter. Upon its resumption, the contest would be “sudden-death”, with the first point (or fraction thereof) deciding the winner.
Dramatists condition us to expect grand climaxes. They rarely happen. The fight resumed, and was over in seconds. Tarvis lunged, Flame darted backward; her foot snagged on some obstruction–a rock, perhaps, or a sheared-off scrap of steel–and her loss of balance afforded Tarvis’s blade a clear path. He struck Flame’s helmet dead-on. The clash of metal against metal rang out even over the raucous crowd.
Flame hit the ground as if she had been flung there. The spectators quieted as one. After a tense moment, Flame raised her arm weakly and signaled with an upturned thumb that she was unharmed. The crowd erupted. The guardsmen swarmed the field, and I lost sight of my two friends.
I returned home, feeling sorry for whichever guards had drawn duty that night. Surely Tarvis’s hard-won victory, coupled with Flame’s revelation of their romantic entanglement, called for double the usual celebration.
“I figured she was still feeling that blow,” Tarvis said as we took seats in my front room. The light of dawn crept in around the shutters. “I didn’t mean to hit her that hard.”
“Of course not.”
“She seemed distracted all night; I thought nothing of it. I was drunk, anyway.”
“I’m champion now, Lady Igarra. The champion never buys his own drinks, but he can’t refuse, either.”
“A double-edged sword. How fitting.”
“Flame barely said anything. She smiled and nodded when the others offered us congratulations; otherwise she just sat and stared.”
“Suddenly, her eyes widened. She whispered, “I know this. I know this.” Then she left. Fled, almost. They wouldn’t let me follow, though.”
“You had to keep drinking.”
“Until a couple of hours ago. I’ve been looking for her ever since. She wasn’t in the barracks; I thought she might be here.”
“She said nothing else?”
“What is it, Tarvis?”
“Before she left, she asked me something. She must still have been addled in the head. I couldn’t understand, much less answer her.”
“What was her question?”
“‘What level are you?'”
It was late afternoon when Flame burst into the house (I had long since altered the magic upon the door to allow her to come and go freely). She had changed out of her uniform. The Tournament had left its mark on her; bruises decorated the pale skin of her forearms, and her scarlet mane couldn’t hide the bump where Tarvis had landed his winning blow.
“What level are you?” she demanded.
“I don’t understand the question.”
“No one has. Do you still have my clothes? I need to see my wallet.”
That last word, I didn’t understand.
“The leather thing in my pocket.”
The folded case with the mysterious paper bits inside. It was still where I had first stored it; I had removed it only to show it to visiting colleagues, futilely hoping that someone would recognize the language. I brought it to her.
“Not yet,” said Flame. “Paper and ink first. To be sure I’m not crazy.”
I fetched them. She sat at the table and carefully wrote out four words in her strange language. “Now look at the card with my picture on it. Do these words match?”
There were many words there, but the four she had written fairly leaped off the card at me. They were in two pairs: SHARON FLANNERY and CODY WYOMING. Flame spoke them aloud, and said that they were her name and homeland. I could only take her word; to me, they were a jumble of meaningless syllables.
“You remember, then.”
“Yes. I still don’t know how I got here, but I remember my real life.”
“It was the blow you received from Tarvis?”
“I think so. It didn’t come back right away. It was a blur at first, but all through the night it grew clearer, until it suddenly resolved all at once.”
“Then you can tell me where you’re from?”
“I need to ask you a question first. Will you answer truthfully?”
“What is your earliest memory? Don’t blurt it out. Think carefully.”
I didn’t need to think carefully.
We lived above my father’s leather working shop. I was four years old, watching a royal funeral procession pass by. I saw the casket and asked what it was. “The queen is in that box,” mother answered matter-of-factly. It was some months before I understood that she was dead; I’d just thought it an eccentric mode of transportation.
At Flame’s insistence, I repeated the story in greater detail. She seemed unsatisfied.
“And you’re certain it actually happened?”
“As certain as I can be.”
“That’s the problem.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Your memories from before I arrived here; are they…different from those that came after?”
“Everything’s been different since you arrived. For the good, if you ask me.” I was trying to lighten her mood, but I fear my smile was less than convincing.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Do your recent memories seem more real?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Would you know the difference?”
“Memories are a matter of faith, I suppose. Strictly speaking, we can’t know that they’re real.”
I rose quickly, knocking over my chair. I hadn’t meant to, but Flame was trying my patience. “Make sense, woman,” I said as I trudged off to fetch the wine that I hoped would allow me to finish this conversation with sanity intact. “When I return, begin at the beginning. No more riddles.”
I made no effort to disguise my irritation; with true friendships, there is no need.
Flame’s story was long and strange and she told it all in one go; I interrupted her only when she unknowingly slipped into her native tongue.
She told of a world not unlike our own, at least in superficial ways; a world of many nations, whose innumerable grand cities bespoke even grander achievements.
For her whole life, less these past several months, this pale creature had lurked on the fringes of that magnificent society, answering to that string of alien syllables: SHARON FLANNERY.
The exhilaration she had felt while riding had indeed been a point of synchronicity with her former life. But Flame had traveled, not on horseback, but astride a two-wheeled mechanical contrivance she referred to as a “motorcycle” (or some approximation thereof; my tongue simply cannot wrap itself around these words). “I was handy in a fight in those days, too,” she added.
Magic, she went on to explain, was only dreamt-of in her world. Some of her native literature was set in fanciful lands not dissimilar to ours, as were certain games whose nature had precipitated her talk of “levels” (I couldn’t be made to understand these latter things; though my misspent youth had granted a passing familiarity with both dungeons and dragons, I failed to see how you could make a game of them.)
“My little brother was always reading that stuff. My old man, too. I never cared for it as much.”
“Your ‘old man?'”
“My…like Tarvis, only…”
She spoke of writers with exotic, unpronounceable names like Norton, Rosenberg, Heinlein, Fforde; of narratives which postulated that fictional realms, once conceived, possessed a spark of reality and could be visited, if you only knew the secret.
“Or someone might be sent there against her will.”
“And that’s what happened to you?” I asked.
“I still don’t remember that part. But I can’t imagine having volunteered.”
The existence of other worlds has been theorized but never proven. Frankly, I had no trouble believing that Flame was from another world. “But one world being more ‘real’ than another is just cultural prejudice. In fact, who’s to say that this isn’t the real world, and you the refugee from someone’s imagination?” She would have none of my argument, and was coldly unappreciative of my jest.
“I’d expect someone who works miracles for a living to be more open-minded.”
“Magic isn’t miraculous; it functions according to known laws.” Fantasy had no place in the practice of wizardry.
“And where did those laws come from?”
We argued the entire evening. Notions such as Flame’s weren’t new, of course; there are millennia-old dramas whose characters address the audience, thereby acknowledging their own fictional natures. “But those are fictions,” I explained.
“That proves my point,” insisted Flame.
Between the wine and Flame’s circular logic, I finished the debate not knowing what I believed anymore.
We moved on to practical matters.
“What will you do?”
“I have to go back,” she said.
“What about Tarvis?”
“I already have a man. One is plenty.” She told me his name; the words meant nothing to me.
“And your obligation to the guard?”
“Easily dismissed, even if it weren’t imaginary. In fact, I’ve already resigned.” A faraway look crossed her face. “A funny thing. I’ve spent my whole life evading the law. I show up here, and the first thing I do is join the police force.” She snickered. “That in itself proves this isn’t real.
“You know, this is the longest I’ve ever spent in one place.”
I sipped at my wine, saying nothing.
“Can you help me?” she asked.”
“I can’t.” It was the truth.
She regarded me for a long moment. “I believe you,” she said finally. “Forgive me for asking; are there wizards in this city more powerful than you?”
Gauging the relative might of wizards is an onerous calculus, but I knew what she meant. “There aren’t.”
“And in other lands?”
To entertain the question was to answer it. There was further discussion, but we both knew the matter was already settled.
To think that, in other contexts, I had admired Flame’s single-mindedness of purpose…
I spent the next day arranging for money, provisions, and a mount, as well as armor and armaments to replace those Flame had returned to the city’s quartermaster. Though I knew of nobody with the power to walk between worlds, I wrote letters of introduction to various wizards just the same; the study of magic often leads down unexpected avenues. We passed the evening studying maps and assessing the swiftest, safest routes. And when Tarvis knocked at the door, we did not answer.
Flame departed at dawn.
Not an hour later, Tarvis came knocking again.
Magic is a business of colleagues, and of enemies. Wizards have little experience navigating conflicting allegiances, for we rarely have more than one true friend at a time.
Indecision paralyzed me, until Tarvis departed and spared me the need to choose.
That was a week ago. Today, my loyalty to Flame and my guilt at avoiding Tarvis finally reached equilibrium. I sought out Tarvis and explained everything. He listened calmly, and when I finished, he summarily quit the city guard and set off after her.
I have spent the last week contemplating Flame’s implacability with regard to her theories, and researching what scholars ancient and modern have to say about the nature of reality (sadly, the study of magic leaves many conspicuous gaps in one’s education, including philosophy).
Tomorrow, I leave.
I don’t know what I’ll do when I find Flame. The paradox of friendship compels me to aid her in her quest, while secretly hoping that she fails and is forced to remain in this world.
But a contrary notion has taken root at the back of my mind and drives my pursuit: part of me hopes that she succeeds.
If she does find a way home, I will beg her, not to stay here, but to take me along. It’s the intellectual in me.
Magic or not, if there is, in fact, a “real world”, that’s the world I want to be in.Share